Totemism is often described as a kinship system linking humans ancestrally to powerful symbols present in the natural world. Totemic systems are said to be built around totems, which are fundamental signs of “kinship” running between human societies or individuals and the surrounding world. The term “totem” comes from “ototeman” in Algonquian (the largest family of languages native to North America) and the tribe of the Ojibwa who were found in the Great Lakes region of the eastern North American woodlands. Its original meaning was “his brother-sister kin.” The grammatical root, ote, identifies an exogamous relationship between brothers and sisters born to the same mother. The classical definition was made by James Frazer that totemism “is an intimate relation which is supposed to exist between a group of kindred people on the one side and a species of natural or artificial objects on the other side, which objects are called the totems of the human group.”
Totems connect human societies to the surrounding world and allow humans to construct social hierarchies that mirror those observed in nature. Totems are most frequently animals though they may also (rarely) be a plant, or even inanimate objects or forces such as the sun, moon, rain, or thunder. Generally totemic societies also have sacred animals and plants, which are not totems. They generally have essentialist beliefs in the animistic qualities of things observed in nature and are most frequently shamanistic. Animals, plants, and even natural phenomena are viewed as having the qualities of living things, including the possession of souls. Animacy may be attributed to spirits dwelling in objects, or the object or phenomena may itself be viewed as a life force. Many anthropologists see totemism as a mechanism for constructing order in society and the surrounding world from the chaos of the universe.
In operation, a totem is generally considered taboo to the members of a clan who identify with that totem. As a rule of thumb, they cannot kill it nor consume its flesh (outside of occasional totemic rituals). The totem is seen as a powerful social feature that binds together the members of a totem clan. All clan members who share a totem are regarded as related kin. In this regard, totemic clans are also generally considered exogamous.
The term made its way into social theory in the late 19th century with the publication of John F. McLennan’s comparative study “The Worship of Animals and Plants.” As was in vogue at the time, he proposed an evolutionary stage in human development characterized by the worship of plants and animals. This was challenged by E. B. Tylor, who saw totemism as a means for people to classify the world and nature but did not see it as a basis for organizing religion. Instead, he saw totemism as linking specific clans to specific animals, rightfully pointing out its kinship role uniting clans and animals in both kinship and mutual alliance. In 1910, Sir James George Frazer published his monumental four-volume work Totemism and Exogamy, in which he compiled all known accounts of the subject to date. Frazer’s own work had been conducted in Australia and Melanesia, where he observed the role of totems in beliefs related to conception and childbirth. He proposed that in primitive religions, conception was thought to occur when a spirit of a plant or animal impregnates a woman. In that way, the child has a direct relationship with the totem. He suggested that totemic beliefs are related to explaining reproductive processes. The sociologist Emile Durkheim, who was interested in early forms of religion, examined totemism in 1912 as part of his efforts to identify the ancient and “pure” forms of religion. He proposed that totemism may have been one of these elementary forms of belief. He saw the concept of the totem as a symbol of group consciousness that allowed primitive societies to conceive of the idea of sanctity.
In a movement away from the idea that totemism reflected a primitive or elementary form of religion, Franz Boas rejected any historical unity in totemic societies and proposed that such generalization existed only in the minds of ethnologists. He observed, in classic particularist form, that there existed no common psychological or historical origin for the practice and that since totemic practices exist in such a wide range of individuals associated with all possible types of social organizations and cultural contexts, the phenomena defies any definition that lumps it into a single category. A. R. Radcliffe-Brown was also unconvinced that institutions of totemism were real. He viewed the study of totemism as being compilations of beliefs and elements taken from different areas and institutions having in common only that they represent an intersection of the social and the natural. Another contemporary, Bronislaw Malinowski, maintained that totemism was an institution that could be studied comparatively, including from both biological and psychological frames. He considered totemism not so much as cultural phenomenon but as a desire to satisfy basic human needs in the context of the natural world.
Throughout the mid-20th century, the role of totemism in religion and social organization continued to be debated. Elkin, discussing totemic society in southern Australia, saw the belief as a means for humans to find solidarity with nature, thereby acknowledging links between humans and the world they live in. By classifying and giving order to the world through totems, aborigines were able to respect and worship the entire natural world. Elkin’s idea that totemism was an organizing principle for religion was heavily criticized by Claude Lévi-Strauss, who saw in totemic societies various types of related religious phenomena extending well beyond totems.
Lévi-Strauss was most certainly influenced by Radcliffe-Brown, and he endeavored to expand on his writings. From a structural perspective, he viewed totemism as reflecting the abstract polarities of nature and culture present in human cultures. These oppositions, or polarities, could be charted to illustrate the complex relationship that, on the one hand, recognized natural realities such as animals and plants, and on the other, various groups and individuals who identified themselves as related to specific types of animals or plants. He discussed four specific types of totemic oppositions, or relationships, that could exist between nature and culture: (1) a group identifying with a specific species of animal or plant, (2) an individual identifying with a species of animal or plant, (3) a specific animal or plant identified with an specific individual, and (4) a specific animal or plant identified with a particular group.
- Boas, F. (1916). The origin of totemism. American Anthropologist, 18, 319-326.
- Frazer, Sir J. G. (1910). Totemism and exogamy. New York: Macmillian.
- Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. (1952). Structure and function in primitive society. New York: Free Press.